Impeaching of a US president is more theatre than threat to their hold on office
Donald Trump will almost certainly escape removal from office, like Bill Clinton did two decades ago
A little more than 20 years ago, I became a world expert on lies. I spent a whole year of my life on one lie. The lie was: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” It was told to the American people by Bill Clinton, the then US president. He also told that lie under oath, and that resulted in his impeachment, the formal process for removing an American head of state.
The point of an impeachment trial – to be blunt – is not justice or truth. It is politics. What happened to Bill Clinton is instructive because in some ways it is the mirror image of what is happening to Donald Trump
I was the BBC’s chief North America correspondent and member of the White House press corps so I sat through the impeachment process from beginning to end, the most extraordinary political theatre I have ever witnessed. The only other US president to be impeached was Andrew Johnson in 1868, just after the American civil war.
Impeachment charges are vaguely called “high crimes and misdemeanours", and it is worth considering whether lies and even impeachment itself really matter. That is because this week, the third most powerful politician in the US, House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi, is about to begin formal proceedings to impeach Donald Trump, the current incumbent of the White House.
So let me begin with a spoiler alert. Mr Trump may be the second president to be impeached in 25 years and the third in US history but he is very unlikely to be removed from office. Impeaching a US president has never led to removal. Never. So what is the point?
We can predict that this new political theatre will transfix Washington, America and much of the world the way Meghan Markle and Prince Harry have dominated the British media in recent days. The point of an impeachment trial – to be blunt – is not justice or truth. It is politics. What happened to Mr Clinton is instructive because in some ways it is the mirror image of what is happening to Mr Trump.
From the moment he was elected in 1992, the Republican Party tried to bring Mr Clinton down. The Republicans won a landslide in Congressional elections in 1994 under Ms Pelosi’s predecessor Newt Gingrich and they immediately investigated the Clintons. It was clear to me at the time that many Republicans simply loathed Bill and Hillary. They still do. The investigation at first focused on the couple's supposed business dealings in what became known as the Whitewater affair. It got nowhere.
However, it was obvious from the first time I met Mr Clinton in 1991 that he liked the company of women. In 1992, he survived allegations of an affair and in a sense that helped his political career. An obscure governor of the somewhat obscure state of Arkansas was suddenly famous. Hillary stood by him. They admitted to troubles in their marriage. It made them seem human, normal.
And so fast forward to the impeachment process after Mr Clinton lied under oath about his affair with Ms Lewinsky. Like tens of millions of Americans I listened to days – weeks – of powerful legal and constitutional arguments, examinations and cross-examinations, and at the end of it I learned two things, both of which merely confirmed what we all knew from the start. Those two things were that people sometimes lie about sex, and that Mr Clinton had an eye for the ladies. He was acquitted. After all the sound and fury, he continued in office, re-built his presidency and left the White House in January 2001 more popular than when he had first arrived in January 1993.
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So consider Mr Trump and the impeachment proceedings against him. They focus on the alleged lies he has told about his dealings with Ukraine over Joe Biden, the former vice president. Clearly, there is a case that these allegations amount to impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanours". But so what? Mr Trump is the mirror image of the Clintons. Democrats loathe him. He speaks of a witch-hunt against him in the same way the Clintons claimed a witch-hunt against them. Like the Clintons, Mr Trump has his enemies but again like them he has a solid base of support from 40 per cent or more of the American people. Karl Marx once quipped that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy the second as farce.
It is not to minimise the charges against Mr Trump – which are clearly serious – to predict that much of what we are about to see will itself appear farcical. At the end of weeks of public hearings what will we learn? That Mr Trump tells lies? That he can be vindictive towards his political enemies? What a surprise. And will the Republican-dominated Senate vote to throw him out of office? Very unlikely.
The key, as with the Clintons, will not be some abstract concept of justice and the constitution but a much harder political battle. Will the revelations about Mr Trump – perhaps over his business dealings – prove politically damaging as he seeks re-election? Was he far less successful in business than his carefully crafted image suggests? Perhaps.
But do not hold your breath. Impeachment is theatre, and experience suggests the final act may be a dramatic disappointment.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter
Updated: January 14, 2020 07:48 PM